Meklit has had a busy spring. The San Francisco-based singer-songwriter released We Are Alive, her latest album, in March, and wrapped up a tour earlier this month.
She recently chatted with Six Degrees about her approach to songwriting and collaborating with other artists—and shared the music she’s been listening to these days.
You wrote the songs for We Are Alive over a period of a couple of years. What was that process like—did you sit down regularly to write them, or did they come to you more organically?
It was a mixed process. Some songs came out fully formed. Like “A Train.” That took all of half an hour to write the melody and lyrics. It just appeared one day while I was sitting on the banks of the Nile. But I had the chords on the guitar for about four years waiting to write a song to them.
In the fall of 2012, I really set about making space for songwriting. Over three months, I wrote about six of the songs that ended up on the record. Actually, I wrote maybe 12 songs, and half of them made the cut. There’s always a lot of output that nobody ever sees. Then, in 2013, the final tunes came. I wrote “In Love with Love” about two weeks before the recording. That was another one that jumped out at me.
Some songs evolved over a long period of time. For example, “In Sleep” came in 2011, but it sounded very different then. It really shifted with that incredible rhythm that Lorca Hart created for it and Sam Bevan’s arrangements. And the song “Overgrown” became this kind of epic with the horn outro that Darren Johnston wrote for it. That came towards the end, right before the recording. The band really contributed a lot to how the songs ended up sounding on the record.
On the album, you collaborated with a very talented and diverse group of musicians, including your regular band members and guest artists. What approach do you take to working with different musicians?
Well, I try to understand what is fundamental to the song, and what has room for experimentation. I think of a song as a skeleton. Sometimes you’re hanging the song onto a bass line, sometimes on a chord progression, sometimes on a particular rhythm. So once you know that, you can keep the foundation, and give musicians room to contribute their particular approach to a tune.
The core band — Sam Bevan on bass, Lorca Hart on drums, and Darren Johnston on trumpet — and I spent the better part of six months working the songs in rehearsals, figuring out parts and developing the sound that you hear on the record. The final and very essential touch was producer Eli Crews, who was a huge part of how the record sounds. We also had some wonderful musical guests, Adam Theis on trombone, Clio Tilton on violin and viola, and Beth Vandervennet on cello.
You’ve performed in a variety of different venues and settings around the world, and just wrapped up a spring tour. What has been your most memorable performance to date, and why?
There have been so many beautiful shows over the years. And often you remember whole tours more than specific shows because you see how the songs evolve over the course of playing them night after night after night. How the band gets both looser and tighter, how the improvisation gets expansive and then goes back to simplicity.
But if there was just one, I would have to say it was my CD-release party for On a Day Like This in May 2010. It was kind of my coming-out party as a musician at a different level. And my dad was there and he danced on stage with me, just like he did at the Great American Music Hall We Are Alive CD-release party, and there were friends from every era of life in the audience. It was a true golden moment.
What type of music or artists do you find yourself listening to a lot these days?
It changes every day. Yesterday I was listening to Cambodian classical songs, as well as the Duke Ellington station on Pandora, the day before that I was listening to Aster Aweke, and Caetano Veloso. So many moods, so much good music to choose from!